The Scent of Christmases Past–On the Occasion that You Give the Season a Sniff

Dear Lily June,

Though I haven’t officially begun it yet (I plan to start on January 1, 2017–may my pronouncement here hold me to it!), my workplace issued its employees a voluntary wellness challenge: to complete a packet of self-reflections on gratitude. It’s an interesting assignment, full of 21 days worth of prompts worthy of consideration, and because I know it’s on my future task list, I’ve only just begun to flip through it. But one item in particular caught my eye (nose?) immediately, because of the irony I now associate with it.

In the first week of the packet, you’re supposed to “Focus on yourself” and one of the prompts reads as follows, “Pick one of your five senses to focus on each day. Take note of how many gifts come to you via that single port of entry. Write about this experience.” The other day, I could have provided the perfect answer, via negativa.

I was walking through campus when the nostril elves shoveling the coal into my olfactories went screaming for the internal hills. Because we have now officially entered winter break, the janitorial staff take this opportunity, when the halls are by and large swept clear of their human cattle student populations, to flush the pipes of the public restrooms. The scent of this is never pleasant, but it usually passes quickly.

For some reason, though, I chose my lunch break/walking hour at the exact moment the process began to take place, walking past the exact public restroom where I can only assume something in the flushing process went horrifically awry. My face became assaulted with a scent I can only describe, graphically as it may be, like this: what you might smell if a dead skunk was able to defecate human excrement directly into bags of burnt popcorn that were still burning.

If your brain is starting to curdle just by reading that description, you can only imagine the experience I had on my circular jog through campus which forced me, in an hour’s time, to pass through that same brown cloud over a half a dozen times. The appreciation I feel, now boundless, is also two-fold: 1.) I am so very grateful I only had to pass by this scent voluntarily; I didn’t have to work in the dozen offices in the direct vicinity of the men’s room in question (bless you, all afflicted facilities staff and campus secretaries!); and 2.) Though one hopes that, given enough time, you might become used to it, I am grateful I don’t work in a place where this scent became a kind of background nostril soundtrack (so to speak) of my life.


I tell this story (because I’m a rambler) in order to get to the memory of three scents I always think of (and am grateful for) at Christmastime, and I wonder, Lily June, what kind of smells will haunt your memory someday around this time. (Sidebar: For an interesting discussion of why your scents are so triggering, go here, to the post written by BarbCT ages ago that partly inspired me to write this today.)

1. The first, inevitably, is Christmas trees. Your dad and I have a big, fake, toilet scrubber now the likes of which might make Charlie Brown roll over in his adorably cartoon grave, and it has its benefits, not the least of which is that it doesn’t break your parents’ backs with its disposal (there was a year we snuck one into our apartment dumpster so long after the snow had thawed, we actually did it under cover of night to avoid being seen / punished / endlessly mocked), and it doesn’t murder our vacuum cleaner with its needles (R.I.P. Best Dyson we ever had. We are sorry our last real tree killed you and your bowling-ball-lifting powerful suction-y sleeve).

But, like catching a whiff of new car scent, there’s something a little Zsa-Zsa luxurious (R.I.P. you glorious Gabor) about the scent of a Christmas tree for me. You know, if “luxury” could be defined not just in diamonds but in the kind of money you drop on a Fraser fir despite the fact that, in nature, it’s nothing more than a squirrel’s festive urinal.

2. The second is the first true, lasting snow that sticks and lays for days without budging, melting, or failing to coat the trees in Postcards From Winterland beauty. We’re talking the kind that’s pre-slush, but just post-hush over the whole of humanity, blizzard dumping whole mounts of the cold cottony stuff snow.

There are two senses that those less in the know might label crazy: one is the ability to hear the high-pitched whine of electronic devices recently snapped off in the dark, wailing away like banshees or howler monkeys (oh hello old TVs pinging from a full picture to a dot of light in the dark, toasters post bread tanning sessions, recently flipped closed laptop screens. I’m listening). The other is the ability to predict, like Punxsutawney Phil inhabits your nasal passages, an upcoming snowfall with only a sniff. Your mother, LJ, possesses both, giving her one more thing in common with her mothering guru, Lorelai Gilmore:

3. The last is the most obscure, a scent that less than a handful of people have ever smelled in their lifetimes, and of those, I may be the only one who remembers. It is the scent of the Christmas ornament I made in school almost three decades ago. It was a hideous, tacky thing, a bauble made of white silken strings glued into a Christmas-themed cupcake wrapper so the whole thing had the appearance of a holiday dessert. Over the top, there were “sprinkles” made with glitter, but more importantly, the scent-producing agent: some kind of artificial cinnamon chunks that looked like a cross between artificial bacon bits and the little red rocks you might adorn the floor of an aquarium with.

Every year around this time, some box would inevitably spit up this hideous monstrosity from my earliest attempts at creativity, and though I shuddered to look at it, I couldn’t help but breathe it in deeply. It held its scent, miraculously, for over a decade (and for all I know, it’s still hanging amongst my mother’s other ornaments, its pleasant aroma, while significantly faded, still sputtering the last coughs of life over her tree.)

You have to imagine that cinnamon gum “became intimate with” a bar of Dove soap, and you get some internal sense of what this ornament, the lovechild of both, smelled like to me. Even now, I can imagine its odors plugged back into my imagination, and the result is, though I can’t explain why, an overwhelming sense of peace, like the world carries with it an inexplicable and magic continuity preserving one small, complete meaningless bit of personal trivia forever in my mind’s nose’s memory.


Lily June, remind me if you will someday to ask you what the holidays smell like to you? I’m fascinated by what might stink stick in your memory.


Picture Credits:

5 thoughts on “The Scent of Christmases Past–On the Occasion that You Give the Season a Sniff

  1. Allie P. says:

    I had to laugh at the description of the janitorial works. I had the ‘opportunity’ to work abroad for a number of weeks and during that time there was something distinctly sulfuresent about the block where my hotel was located. On the plus side, I always knew I was in the right neighborhood when I caught that first whiff, even if I wasn’t always able to read the signs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bradley says:

    Sorry you had to walk by that men’s room at such a bad time. As for me, it would not have been a problem. I was born without a sense of smell. That’s something I like about this post. It helps me a little to understand what scent is like.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. BarbCT says:

    I think I would have found an alternate route that day after the first pass.

    You have such a wonderful way with words you really should consider writing a book, even if it’s an e-book instead of paper.

    I’m also happy to know that I inspired you a bit as I admire your writing a great deal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Shameful Narcissist says:

    The reek description left MY nose burning, and I wasn’t unfortunate enough to smell it hehe. I have nothing but appreciation for people who clean public bathrooms. They deserve nothing but our respect, and I try to show that respect by leaving the stall as clean or cleaner than when I found it. It does amaze me though that I work with adults who do not follow this rule. I’m baffled how it’s so difficult to flush a toilet of wipe off a seat, but I suppose I digress.

    The smell of baking cookies, while cliched, is still the nose memory that will always stick with me for the holidays. My late mother would spend literally weeks in the kitchen concocting goodies the likes of which cannot be believed. A good portion of these were given away, but plenty and more remained in the house for consumption around the holidays. Tomorrow is my cookie making day as it were (last minute and all), and I just try not to eat too much dough 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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